Abstract: Housing and crowding are critical to health. Sufficient, well-maintained housing infrastructure can support healthy living practices for hygiene, nutrition and safety. However, when there is insufficient public housing for a growing community and a lack of functioning health hardware, the transmission risk of hygiene-related infectious diseases increases. The outcome is that many Indigenous Australians currently living in remote areas experience considerably higher levels of preventable infections, such as boils, scabies, middle ear infections and lung infections, than their non-Indigenous and urban counterparts. This report provides a case study of Tennant Creek and the surrounding Barkly Region in the Northern Territory, to highlight the relationship between remote housing, crowding and infectious disease. It was conducted in partnership between The University of Queensland (School of Public Health and Aboriginal Environments Research Centre) and Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation, an Aboriginal Community-Controlled Health Organisation that provides health services within the town and through a mobile clinic. Data were drawn from three sources: over two years of infection diagnoses from the Anyinginyi clinical database, a survey of 36 households in town Community Living Areas(CLAs)and remote bush communities, and 18 interviews with clinicians and public health staff of the Anyinginyi clinic. The data were not intended to be representative, due to a limited sample size, but instead to provide a ‘snapshot in time’ of the health status, housing quality and crowding levels that were experienced by the targeted residents, observed by Anyinginyi staff, and recorded by the clinicians. The project found that there are much higher levels of crowding in bush communities and in town than officially recorded, with an average of 7.3 and 10.8 people respectively, and up to maximums of 22 and 20 people respectively reported in households surveyed. Crowding increases the likelihood of health hardware malfunction and results in householders living with non-functional hot water systems, windows, kitchen facilities, washing machines and toilets, among other health hardware. This leads to difficulty performing health living practices such as washing bodies, clothes and bedding, hygienic sanitation, and safe food preparation. New housing is required to reduce current crowding, yet no new housing has been built in at least 12 years for Aboriginal people in this region. The $78.4 million Barkly Regional Deal and the Remote Housing Strategy ($110million dedicated in the 2019-20 Federal budget) offer an opportunity, but no details had been released as of December 2019.Housing repairs are often delayed. There are high rates of preventable, hygiene-related infectious diseases in the bush communities and CLAs. Over half of the total infectious disease diagnoses were skin infections (boils, sores, scabies and school sores), respiratory infections (upper and lower respiratory tract), and ear, nose and throat infections (middle ear/otitis media, tonsillitis, ear canal and pharyngitis/sore throat). Other notable diagnoses include trachoma, conjunctivitis, gastroenteritis, rheumatic fever, and tooth decay. Chronic kidney disease and rheumatic heart disease are the outcome of repeated infection. This burden of disease affects morbidity and mortality (life expectancy) with associated costs to the government for ongoing health care for dialysis and treatment. Bringing together this evidence, the fundamental cause of the high rates of preventable infections is crowding, that is in turn a result of insufficient housing supply, and a lack of maintenance of existing housing by authorities. Residents correctly perceived that specific health issues are exacerbated by housing conditions and crowding, including scabies from insufficient water for bathing, intestinal worms from leaking sewage, and mental health impacts from the stress of living in crowded conditions. This report provides new evidence that confirms ongoing issues of crowding and health impacts. Crowding rates are no longer being regularly monitored due to the cessation of targeted Aboriginal housing surveys by the Commonwealth Government. Therefore, based on the evidence collated in this report, questions are posed for policymakers in health, housing and Indigenous affairs, including:•When will new housing be built to reduce crowding and infection levels in remote towns and communities? •Can housing be better designed, implemented and maintained through increased local Indigenous governance and employment? •Can health hardware, including washing machines, be ensured to be functional, accessible and available? •Can infection diagnoses trigger environmental health improvements in clients’ homes? The research has highlighted the need for further research to strengthen the evidence and provide monitoring of improvement initiatives. In responding to these questions with a current evidence base, there is a possibility to achieve the expectation set out in the decade-old National Indigenous Reform Agreement that ‘children need to live in accommodation with adequate infrastructure conducive to good hygiene ... and free of overcrowding’.
Hall, NL, Memmott, P, Barnes, S, Redmond, A, Go-Sam, C, Nash, D, Frank, T, Simpson, P, 2020, Pilyii Papulu Purrukaj-ji (Good housing to prevent sickness): A study of housing, crowding and hygiene-related infectious diseases in the Barkly Region, Northern Territory, Report, viewed 30 November 2023, https://www.nintione.com.au/?p=17487.